For the casual observer, Los Angeles and Southern California as a whole appear to be pretty sizeable tennis markets considering excellent weather conditions almost all year round. The not so casual observer sees little growth in light of a decreasing number of tennis courts despite an ever increasing tennis player base. The attraction of Los Angeles as a tennis destination has suffered particularly in the last 10 years. The WTA event had to vacate Carson and the ATP’s event at UCLA is showing low participation numbers. However, 2,000 miles to the east the situation is a little different. Tennis is booming in the Greater Atlanta, Georgia area. The USTA is big and ALTA is even bigger. League play at the 77 year old Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association is dwarfing all of Southern California league play. How is that possible? And what can we learn from an organization that prides itself in having 80,000 members in Atlanta and being recognized by tennis players around the world?
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Tennis is a popular sport in the Southern part of the United States. Last year the ATP event from Indianapolis moved to Atlanta and is now called Atlanta Tennis Championships. USTA’s Southern Section is the largest of the 17 Sections, headquartered just north of the city, in Norcross. Less than 10 miles west from there, on 6849 Peachtree Dunwoody Road, is the headquarter of ALTA, operating a league membership of 75,000 players with 5 paid staff and 200 volunteers.
Robin Finn wrote in the New York Times in 1992, “With its 71,000 members after 22 years of breakneck growth, the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association is unquestionably the largest grass-roots tennis league in the world.” Finn adds, “At the league playoffs, which happen at the end of each seven-week cycle, teams compete for the glory of it as well as for embossed bag tags, which accumulate like so many scalps on the equipment bags of frequent winners.” For many members displaying their bag tags seems to come very close to winning a Wimbledon Championship.
The ALTA web site states: The Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association (ALTA) is a non-profit organization devoted to the development of tennis for recreation and physical fitness and is pledged to maintain the rules of play and high standard of sportsmanship. The primary function of ALTA is scheduling league play for adult teams and junior teams in the five-county metro area.Historically, the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association was first registered with USTA predecessor United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) in 1934. The purpose of the organization at that time was to promote tennis tournaments and junior tennis development in the Atlanta area.
The web site continues under History: ALTA started league play in 1971 with less than 1,000 members. It grew to almost 10,000 in 1975, 35,000 in 1982, over 51,000 in 1988 and 71,000 in 1992. Today ALTA has approximately 80,000 members. It has evolved from a small group of volunteers to a large non-profit corporation licensed by the State of Georgia and recognized by tennis players around the world.
ALTA League is very popular in the Greater Atlanta area. Members incur only one fee of $25 annually. Considering the number of league teams a player can join, this is without a doubt a real good deal. Jerry Niemeyer, ALTA’s President, says. “As an example a woman over the age of 55 can play in as many as eleven 7 week leagues a year which works out to about $.38 cents per match not counting playoffs.”
ALTA is divided into four playing levels; AA, A, B, and C. Within each one of these levels many as 9 flights (A-1, A-2, etc.) are possible, with as many as 8 divisions per flight. Any given team can hold a variety of NTRP ratings since ALTA rates teams and not individuals. In general, C equals 2.0 to 3.0, B equals 3.0 to 4.0, A equals 4.0 to 5.5 and in AA one will find teaching pros, and former college players who are 6.0 and up.
Niemeyer adds, “The major difference between ALTA and USTA leagues is that we do not assign player values, just team values. If a player leaves a team at the end of the season to join a new team for the following season, he will carry his former team’s value with him to the new team. The level placement of the new team may be impacted by the addition of that player. We do not have an additional fee for each league the player participates in and we do not offer singles play.”
Niemeyer is also proud of ALTA’s “…very good relationship with USTA.” ALTA is affiliated with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) through membership in the Southern Tennis Association (STA) and abides by the USTA rules of tennis and code of play. As an active participant in the Atlanta Tennis Championship they were organizing an ALTA night during the tournament in the past two years. The Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association tries to not create an atmosphere of direct competition with the USTA, especially in light of the fact that many ALTA members belong to both organizations. ALTA’s major leagues of men's doubles and women's doubles are held in the spring and fall while the USTA Southern District of Georgia holds those leagues in the winter and summer in the Atlanta area. Overlap is not always avoidable, but competition is kept to a minimum.
But are both organizations not always competing for the same courts? Apparently, but not necessarily. The Greater Atlanta area has a large number of county operated parks that have tennis courts and there are also a number of private tennis clubs that participate in ALTA league play. Additionally, during the home building boom of the 70's, 80's, and 90's, virtually every subdivision built in the area came with two tennis courts and a swimming pool. Niemeyer says, “It was a perfect storm as tennis and Atlanta grew at virtually the same time.”
One of the challenges for ALTA members and the main reason for ALTA to maintain its current growth rather than expand into other areas is the geographical expanse of Greater Atlanta where traffic is a major concern. Growth has to come from new subdivisions built within their current service area. Further expansion for ALTA is also planned for the Junior Program. The organization already has Junior League Play for the 10U through the 18U and a Junior Challenge Ladder. Robby Ginepri and Melanie Oudin were both members of this Ladder.
What can Southern California’s USTA programs learn from ALTA? While it probably is not feasible to transplant an entire program to the West Coast, and SoCal adult Leagues work well for the most part, there are ways to grow the program here the “ALTA way.”
- Expanded use of public park courts throughout the area through far reaching agreements with Parks and Rec departments.
- Concerted effort and master plan to utilize thousands of subdivision courts and private home courts in SoCal.
- Creation of a small “army” of volunteers organizing adult league play in subdivisions, private homes, and public parks.
- Reward program for Championship players similar to the very popular ALTA bag tag idea.
- Instill a bigger “team” spirit ratings system in addition to the existing emphasis on individual NTRP player ratings.
One other aspect of ALTA’s organizational structure is the ALTA Foundation.
In existence since 1986, it was created by ALTA to promote health, character, sportsmanship, and responsible citizenship by using the game of tennis to support, not only amateur athletes, but programs for the disadvantaged, the physically and mentally challenged, and to provide inner-city youth new opportunities for the future.
Dedicated volunteers create various ALTA Foundation programs and enable the organization to touch thousands of adults, juniors, and handicapped players in the Atlanta area, as well as nationally.
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